Saturday 4 August 2018

Introducing the art of bel canto - the London Bel Canto Festival

Nina Sveistrup Clausen (soprano) and Janus Araghipour (piano) at last year's London Bel Canto Festival
Nina Sveistrup Clausen (soprano) and Janus Araghipour (piano) at last year's London Bel Canto Festival
The London Bel Canto Festival returns to London for the second year (6-22 August 2018) providing a programme of masterclasses and concerts celebrating the art of bel canto. But what exactly is bel canto, and what does the festival hope to achieve? I met up with the festival's founder and artistic director, Kenneth Querns Langley, to find out more about the fesitval, as well as discovering some of Kenneth's own researches into the early 19th century tenor voice.

Kenneth explained the aims of the festival are three-fold, an academy for young singers, performances and encouraging new music

During the festival, the academy works with young singers to educate them in historical approaches to bel canto technique. Not necessarily bel canto repertoire, but how bel canto technique can be used in other repertoire too.  

The festival also includes performances, from both the young singers from the academy and distinguished older singers, to entertain and educate the public. The aim is to show how bel canto influences performance practice, and how this can be different to contemporary vocal techniques. Moving forward, there are plans to include a complete opera in next year's festival. 

The final thread is the encouragement of new music written for bel canto singers using bel canto techniques. The aim is to encourage composers to understand the capabilities of bel canto singers. This year's festival includes a new piece by Clara Fiedler for piano, trumpet, horn and soprano, taking advantage of the soloist's big voice and three-octave range.


So what exactly is bel canto?

Manuel Garcia, aged 100 by John Singer Sargent
Manuel Garcia, aged 100 by John Singer Sargent

Kenneth admits that it can be a contentious word, meaning different things to different people. Whilst strictly a vocal technique, it has come to be applied to the music written for the singers using that technique, so we refer to the music of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti as bel canto. But Kenneth is keen to emphasise that the term is broader than that, and when he refers to bel canto he is also referring to an historical pedagogical vocal technique (the way singers were taught in the early and middle 19th century). This does rather lead to a problem with branding, which Kenneth admits, and part of the festival's educational aims is to make the public understand exactly what bel canto is.

Kenneth also wants to raise the public's awareness of the importance of the British links in bel canto. So many of the major bel canto composers and singers performed here, both Manuel Garcia [1805-1906] (a singing teacher and author of an important pedagogical treatise) and Mathilde Marchesi [1821-1913] (a singer and teacher) both lived in London. So Kenneth wants to both raise the awareness of bel canto in the UK and raise the awareness of the importance of the UK in the history of bel canto.

Events at this year's festival include public masterclasses from distinguished performers, Bruce Ford, Nelly Miricioiu and Aprile Millo, and Aprile Millo is also giving a recital at Cadogan Hall, as well as working privately with the students at the academy. The young artists from this year's academy will also be giving concerts, with the repertoire taken from the works that they will be studying during the academy, including Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda and La Sonnambula.

His teacher was a grand-student of Mathilde Marchesi and Manuel Garcia

Kenneth, a singer himself, has worked in bel canto as since being a student when his teacher was a grand-student of Mathilde Marchesi and Manuel Garcia (ie Kenneth's teacher's teacher was taught by Marchesi and Garcia, and such pedigrees are important in the world of vocal technique). Kenneth has a strong interest in bel canto techniques but is also working with modern voice scientists to find out exactly what is happening physically when singers perform. He is currently doing a doctorate at the Royal College of Music, doing research in the historical reconstruction of the tenor voice in the early 19th century.

Kenneth began teaching 17 years ago and saw how influential bel canto technique could be with students, partly because it was so different from the contemporary way of teaching voice. As we cannot actually see all the muscles used in vocal production (though vocal science is changing that), the differences between the various pedagogical techniques become more important. In fact, one of Kenneth's reasons for starting the festival was to expand from reaching individuals in single lessons to have a wider influence on singers and on the public, and he candidly admits that it had to be a festival because he does not, yet (!), have the financial ability to found a school.

Researches into the early 19th-century tenor voice

Manuel Garcia senior in the title role of Rossini's Otello
Manuel Garcia senior
in the title role of Rossini's Otello
Regarding Kenneth's own researches into the early 19th-century tenor voice, can we really reconstruct what these tenors sounded like with their vocal range going up to high F (a fourth above Luciano Pavarotti's famed Top C)? It is a subject of enormous contention, how loud were these super-high notes, were they just modern tenors with a bit of counter-tenor falsetto added to the top, or were they something different.

Whilst we can't be completely certain, Kenneth feels that we can create an informed set of propositions about the voice type. Based on what we know, we can saw what was likely to have been going on. Kenneth's proposition in his thesis, which he cohesively argued during our conversation, is that these early 19th century tenors had far bigger voices in the upper range than we originally credited. Rather than the light falsetto, they sang with something stronger and more brilliant. Going back to the original pedagogical treatises, there are plenty of casual comments about the sort of voices being produced. And we know that Manuel Garcia's father, also Manuel Garcia [1775-1832], who was both a singer and teacher, had a bit full sound with the top of his voice sounding metallic and strident. Intriguingly, Garcia senior sang the title role in Mozart's Don Giovanni, and Rossini wrote the role of Count Almaviva in Il barbiere di Sivigla for Garcia but nowadays this is sung by a far lighter voiced tenor.

Our discussion then continued with Kenneth being fascinatingly illuminating about the various techniques involved in creating these high notes. Vocal techniques have changed a lot since the early 19th century, and singers need try and re-discover these original techniques. The modern-day singers who come closest to that Kenneth feels was the early 19th-century tenor sound are Michael Spyres, who has recorded a number of bel canto roles for Opera Rara) and William Matteuzzi (who has now retired from live performance but who also recorded a number of roles for Opera Rara).

London Bel Canto Festival logo
Part of the whole problem is in the terminology. These high tenor parts are referred to as tenore contraltino, but when Manual Garcia's pedagogical treatise was translated into English in the later 19th century, the term contraltino was translated as counter-tenor, which in English culture with its strong tradition of the falsetto counter-tenor voice, had a very different meaning.

Of course, talking about these voice types is one thing, and listening to them entirely another. The importance of the London Bel Canto Festival is that it gives the public a chance to hear early 19th-century vocal techniques in use, and it gives young singers the chance to learn additional vocal techniques. It is worth bearing in mind that Richard Wagner was a great admirer of bel canto technique. A bel canto Ring, now that is a thought!

The London Bel Canto Festival runs from 8 to 21 August 2018. Events include a recital by Aprile Millo at the Cadogan Hall (21 August 2018), Young Artists concerts (8, 10, 17 & 18 August) and public master classes with Bruce Ford, Nelly Miricioiu and Aprile Millo

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Prom 26: Late night Baroque queens at the Royal Albert Hall  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Into the mind of Bloody Mary: Martin Bussey & Di Sherlock's Mary's Hand (★★★½) - Opera review
  • Suppleness and elegance: a new Les Pêcheurs de Perles from an all-French team (★★★★★) - CD review
  • SWAP'ra gala at Opera Holland Park  - concert review
  • Enterprising rarity: Ethel Smyth's The Boatswain's Mate at Grimeborn (★★★½) - Opera review
  • Spinto showcase: Angel of Fire from Katerina Mina (★★★½) - CD review
  • Bernstein's problem child: a lively & engaging Candide at West Green House (★★★½)   - Opera review
  • Lucretia through a newcomer’s eyes and ears: Britten at the Grimeborn Festival (★★★½) - opera review
  • Prom 17: Parry, Holst & Vaughan Williams (★★★★) - concert review
  • Approaching Winterreise: Angelika Kirchschlager on performing Schubert's great song cycle  - interview
  • Richly Romantic: Mascagni rarity, Isabeau, brought to life at Opera Holland Park (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Home

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